Thursday, March 11, 2010

Souhan Wrong, Again

The more time I dedicate to writing, the quicker you guys will realize how much I despise Jim Souhan's writing. I don't read Souhan's articles much anymore, usually only clicking on a link when someone feels I'd care enough to read it, but anything he writes about baseball makes me cringe. He knows nothing of the newer stats, and like most aging sportswriters he simply refuses to change his ways. That creates several factually incorrect statements, and the more annoying, totally off base opinions he has.

Souhan's most recent article was simply ridiculous. I'd link it here but if you haven't read it yet I don't want to put anyone through the misery. It was filled with terrible similes, like always, baseless, incorrect facts, and his totally off-base, crazy opinions. I will be using some quotes directly from the article, so if you want to keep your mind sane, just skip the italicized parts.

"If the Twins signed Mauer to a deal worth $25 million a year -- which might be what it takes -- what might they have to pay to keep Morneau, who was considered the more valuable player until last season?"

Considered the more valuable player by whom? You and your other misinformed aging sportswriter buddies? Well, clearly, considering Morneau was awarded the 2006 MVP when both Mauer and Jeter were more valuable by quite a large margin and the voters are, well, you and your misinformed friends.

The voting process is ultimately a joke, which is why the MVP each year is hardly ever the actual MVP. Last year was a fluke more so than a sign of things to come in regards to both Pujols and Mauer winning deservedly. To say Morneau was considered more valuable seems laughable at best, but even if we pretend for a minute that Morneau was better than Mauer, guess what? Nothing needs to be done if you give Mauer $25MM per year. Morneau is signed through 2013, so the Twins would not have to worry about how much money Morneau was worth again until 2014. Factoring in the real life scenario that is, in fact, that Joe Mauer is much more valuable and has been for a few years now means Souhan is incredibly off base.

Look at it from their perspective. The franchise has survived the early retirement and subsequent death of Puckett; eight consecutive losing seasons in the '90s, $20 million payrolls; the trade of Johan Santana; their owner volunteering the franchise for contraction; and Lew Ford.

You think that is our front-offices perspective? To always remember that even after making horrible mistakes they eventually built a winner? As big as Puckett was in this state, Mauer is bigger. Hometown hero drafted #1 overall and helps carry the Twins to the brink of greatness... it sounds like a book more so than what it is, the truth. I'm sure Bill Smith and Co. routinely have meetings in which they say "Hey, we've given away franchise players before, we can do it again!" Absolutely not, Jimmy. Sorry. The Lew Ford comment made me smirk, so I guess that was kind of funny, but the rest of that paragraph reeks of idiocy.

"The worst scenario for the Twins would be watching Mauer leave in free agency. That would be far more damaging to the franchise than a productive trade of even their most popular player."

What? Why are we just assuming any trade of Mauer would be productive? This is the game GM who traded Johan Santana, Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett in a one year span, and all we have to show for those three now: Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, JJ Hardy, Jon Rauch and an extremely young, yet declining pitching prospect in Deolis Guerra. As a fan, I would much rather enjoy a full season of Mauer, especially since they are legitimate contenders for the first time in a while. The Twins would obviously get two draft picks if Mauer signed elsewhere, and if used correctly two early draft picks could replenish the system just fine.

For that reason the actual 'worst-case scenario' would be to trade Mauer to Boston or the Yankees for players on the verge of breaking out only to watch them stop developing while Mauer wins World Championship after World Championship in pinstripes.

Regardless of what actually happens with Mauer, to suggest they trade him because he hasn't signed a contract extension three weeks prior to opening day is ludicrous. If Mauer remains unsigned near July I will assume he's going to test the market, and we can argue if it makes sense to trade Mauer then. Too many variable over the next four months are going to make this Souhan article look ridiculous, which is why it's such a poorly constructed idea for an article during the spring.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Joe Nathan

Early yesterday morning, the Twins received news that Joe Nathan had a torn UCL. That should sound familiar to Twins fans, because both Francisco Liriano and Pat Neshek tore their UCL's over the last two years. The surgery most often employed for a pitcher with a torn UCL is the most dreaded three word phrase in baseball: Tommy John Surgery. However, a torn UCL does not automatically require surgery.

I'm certainly not a doctor, but I've seen someone pitch an entire season with a torn UCL so I know it can be done. In 2008, around the same time the Twins had decided to shut Neshek down for the season, Jefferson High School made a surprise late-season charge to get to the state tournament, and managed to get all the way to the State Championship before losing to a less-talented Coon Rapids team.

That year, my brother led Jefferson with 53.1 IP, posting a 2.36 ERA and going 5-2. He did that with a torn UCL all season. For those claiming Nathan may pitch well early in the year but it will only get worse and he will collapse come playoff time, you're wrong. The longer you pitch with a torn UCL, the more bearable it gets simply because more scar tissue builds up over the injury. It's still incredibly painful, but pitching well late in the season is something that can be done. Again I'll point to my brother, who threw a complete game in the state semi-finals to lead Jefferson to a 3-1 victory and one of the most improbable State Championship runs in recent memory.

Now, I'd like to give Nathan the benefit of the doubt based on Lavelle E. Neal's report that he's going to wait a few weeks before throwing and then attempt to pitch through it. For now, I will. However, if Nathan deems the pain unbearable, I will be the first one to criticize him. Watching my brother will his way through a seven inning start, every week, while making a grand total of $0.00 was great, and if Joe Nathan can't fight through it to throw his usual 70 innings over five months while making $12MM, criticism doesn't seem unfair. Of course, pitching with a torn UCL and pitching well with a torn UCL are completely different scenarios. Nathan's control will undoubtedly be less than perfect, and he may feel like he has little to no control of his pitches. If that's the case, and that is the reason the team gives for him deciding to shut it down, I will at least understand. If he shuts it down because he's in pain, when the injury can't get any worse than it already is, criticism will come.

However, by all accounts Nathan is doing everything he can to assure he pitches this season, so I hope he can deal with the pain enough to pitch one inning every few days. Of course, as good as Nathan is at what he does, if the Twins were going to lose a 'core' piece for the season, Nathan would've been my preference. No, despite what a lot of the local media thinks because of the post-season last year, Nathan isn't slipping much. He's still an elite closer, but the reason his loss can be dealt with is because he's averaged just under 70 innings a year since becoming the Twins closer. 162 games, times 9 innings per game, is 1,458 innings. Nathan's 70 innings are just 4% of the pitching staff's total innings over a full season, and it's actually less because of extra inning games.

Some will argue pitching in the 9th inning is a lot different than pitching in the 7th or 8th inning, and they will point to someone who blows save after save but can get the job done in other situations. I disagree with those people, because the fact is you can find outliers to back up your assertion no matter what you're arguing. Fernando Rodney, for instance, was very good last season in strictly save situations but was awful in non-save situations. Does that mean he would be unable to be used as a set up man? I doubt it, considering he was a fairly effective middle reliever and set up man before taking over the closer role.

Nearly every closer in the league today started out in a different role. Even the great Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer in the history of baseball, was a set up man early in his career. When Francisco Rodriguez jumped onto the scene prior to the Angels playoff run, he did so in a setup role to Troy Percival. The truth is there are plenty of capable relievers who may excel if given a chance to close on a regular basis, but the opportunity never arises. While losing Nathan's sparkling ERA and his crazy good K/9 among other things, the fact that his numbers accounted for such a small portion of the team's season makes his loss at least bearable if he decides to follow through with surgery.

I have no idea who the team will anoint as the closer for this coming season, and while I tend to disagree with the whole 'closer mentality' argument, I don't want to see a closer by committee approach. It's failed spectacularly far too many times to be a coincidence. I would prefer the team simply gives the role to Rauch, Mijares, or even Neshek, promotes Slama or Van Mil to fill the last bullpen spot (which may actually end up going to Glen Perkins now... vomit) and continue on with their season. Chad Cordero, who's in camp with the Mariners, likely will be available after the spring because the Mariners have a loaded bullpen. Cordero has closer experience and was among the best closers in baseball just a few years ago, but like Neshek he's coming off a fairly serious injury and honestly doesn't seem like a worthwhile risk when the Twins have plenty of depth and young talent looking for an opportunity. Of course, it's possible the Twins give the 5th spot in the rotation to Duensing or Perkins, and decide to try Liriano as the closer. While I think Liriano could be deadly as a closer, he pitched so well this past winter I believe the Twins absolutely need to give him one more chance in the starting rotation.

Losing Joe Nathan would certainly weaken the Twins, but they still should be the favorites in the AL Central and if their starting rotation can continue to improve they could still finally make some noise in the playoffs. Nathan is an elite closer, but with the way closers are incorrectly used these days, losing even an elite closer isn't nearly the blow losing someone like Slowey or Baker would have been. Maybe this injury will allow the Twins to find their closer of the future, and if they're really lucky, their closer for this year too.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Why Mauer Has to be Re-Signed

As we continue to get deeper into Spring Training, the lack of a Joe Mauer contract extension is slowly starting to worry many Twins fans, myself included. I've read quite a few articles over the last few days about why signing Mauer may in fact be a mistake and to be honest I'm always baffled when someone takes that stance. Without a doubt, signing Mauer to a long-term deal isn't without risks, but that could be said of any long-term deal for a team without unlimited resources.

The biggest arguments against a Joe Mauer extension seem to be that he's injury prone, the Twins would be giving about 20% of their payroll to one player and one of their top prospects is a near-ready catcher. Some people have touched on all three points when trying to explain why it could be a mistake, while others have simply tried to drive one of those three points home.

We'll address the myth that is Joe Mauer being injury prone first. Yes, he missed basically a full season in 2004 with a knee injury, and he missed the first month last year because of injuries. He played in only 109 games in 2007, but has played in 130 games or more four of the last five years. That includes last season, which is incredible considering he missed the team's first twenty-two games. Mauer has played in as many or more games than almost every catcher in baseball over the last five years, and he's been the best offensive catcher during that span. The fact is catchers simply don't play 160 games a year, and as long as Mauer continues to average 130 games a year he'll remain one of the most durable catchers in the league, contrary to the local media's opinion.

Some recent suggestions have assumed the Twins and Mauer are hammering out details on a 10-year, $200MM contract. Personally, I think that's pretty far off the mark. If the Twins are going to take such a major risk with a 10-year contract, it's only going to be if they pay Mauer at a discount price for those ten years. I think a 7-year, $140MM extension seems much more likely, but if it is indeed a ten year deal it'd likely be closer to $170MM than $200MM. A seven-year contract at $20MM a year is enough risk for a team like the Twins to take, and in my opinion it wouldn't be necessary for the team to extend that risk beyond seven years. There'd be little upside for the Twins to pay an extra $60MM over three years, and honestly I think Mauer would be fine with a seven year extension instead of a ten-year because it would give him the opportunity to leave if the Twins weren't contending in the latter stages of Mauer's career.

Even if we assume a 7-year/$140MM extension, that means the Twins would be paying Mauer more than 20% of their payroll for seven years. Factor in the three years and $42MM left on Morneau's contract and the Twins would have $34MM of about a $90MM payroll, or 38%, committed to two players between 2011 and 2013. Of course, Mauer and Morneau are two of the league's best players, and are well worth such a large commitment.

Lastly, expecting Wilson Ramos to step in and replace Joe Mauer seems silly. Even assuming Ramos is going to become a starting caliber catcher in the big leagues is premature. I'm as high on Ramos as probably anyone you'll find, but he's only played about half a season at AA. Of course, hitting .317/.341/.454 in half a season in AA as a 21-year old catcher after excelling at every previous stop gives plenty of reason to be optimistic. However, for a team hoping to contend year in and year out, the downgrade that would be created by going from Mauer to Ramos is something the Twins can't afford. The best case scenario would have Ramos tear up AA and receive a promotion to AAA about mid-season, and hit well there as well. That should increase Ramos' stock even more, and assuming the Twins do finally finish up this Mauer extension, Ramos may be a major asset to have as the trade deadline approaches.

Even with all of these reasons to keep Mauer, the most important reason can be explained in only one sentence. As a friend said to me, "The face of the franchise needs to be resigned." Indeed he does. I'm sick of worrying.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Will Delmon Young Breakout?

"Delmon Young is in the shape of his life, looks 19, is figuring it out... A very bright man on the verge of The Breakout." -Peter Gammons, via Twitter.

Since the Twins acquired Delmon Young, fans and front office executives alike have been waiting for him to finally breakout. After a so-so rookie year in Tampa Bay, Young has regressed over the last two seasons, but has managed to string together enough hot streaks to keep people overly hopeful. Peter Gammons is a great reporter and I have nothing but respect for him, but forgive me for not buying into the "Delmon is ready to breakout" storyline as Spring Training gets underway.

Every spring the story is the same. Player X looks fantastic, came to camp in the best shape of his life, and is ready to have his best season yet. Remember two springs ago, when Boof Bonser reportedly arrived at camp having lost nearly thirty pounds in the off-season? There were stories all over the media about how Bonser's endurance would be much greater, and he was ready to break out.

That's why fans love spring training so much. Other than baseball returning after a few months out of the public eye, the spring brings hope for fan bases that have been tortured for years. One or two breakout candidates make the spring and first month of the season interesting for those fans of teams who likely won't compete anytime soon.

Unfortunately, almost every "He's in great shape!" story ends up being forgotten in May when Player X is struggling just like he has over the last few years. Obviously, as a Twins fan, I'm hoping Delmon Young does figure things out and reaches even 80% of what people had believed he would become. However, Young has given me very little reason to believe he's on the verge of a breakout.

In 2008, Young's first season with Minnesota, he hit .290/.336/.405 with 10 home runs and 14 steals in 152 games. Fans always felt like Young had been solid that year, because he hit .290 as a 22-year old. Of course, batting average is a fairly worthless statistic, and in Young's case can be very misleading. A .336 on base percentage isn't horrible, but considering how strong left field is offensively across the league, it's still pretty bad. His .405 slugging was absolutely abysmal, and his defense was even worse, which is why his 2008 season was considered a major disappointment.

Last year, Young hit .284/.308/.425. He was the worst offensive AND defensive left fielder in baseball last season for anyone who received 300 at bats or more. The fact that his on base percentage dropped almost 10% when most hitters see theirs improve as they get older is worrisome. His slugging did increase by about 5%, but even at .425 he's still got a long ways to go to become an effective starter on the offensive side of the ball.

Defensively, Young has a fantastic arm, but even without UZR people would know Young is awful at tracking fly balls. He takes terrible routes to the balls, and he often mistimes his jump so he makes semi-routine plays into doubles or triples. The scouting reports suggested Young would be a plus defender because of his above-average speed and amazing arm, but that clearly hasn't been the case yet.

Young did hit well during the second half last season, including a torrid final two weeks that helped carry the Twins into the playoffs. Until Young can put together a full season of above average play, though, I won't buy into the fact that he's turned the corner. He's been among the worst players in baseball over the last two years, and the only reason he's being given time and chances to succeed is because he's a former #1 overall pick and the Twins gave up an absolutely boatload of talent to bring him here.

Young continues to hit too many balls on the ground, and unless he can drastically change his swing mechanics to help him get more lift on the ball he's going to continue to lack the game power most left fielders in this league have. It's unfortunate, because Young likely has more batting practice power than just about anyone in baseball, but until he proves he can get the job done in games he's simply a liability to a team that has World Series aspirations.

I hope I am monumentally wrong about Young, but facts are facts and to this point Young has shown very little to hint at a sudden breakout, and the fact that someone is predicting Young to have a breakout season during Spring Training hardly makes me optimistic. My prediction for Young's line this coming season is a .287/.327/.440, which is an improvement over the last two seasons. Unfortunately, that's still pretty poor for a left fielder, and the fact that Young gives away over 25 runs a year in left field defensively, he's simply not a starting caliber player. Hopefully Gardy notices this before it's too late.